Who Should Start The MLB All-Star Game?
Being named an All-Star Game starter remains one of the most prestigious honors bestowed upon pitchers into today’s MLB, right behind winning the Cy Young Trophy. I mean, look at these illustrious names that have started the All-Star Game in the past decade: Ben Sheets, Kenny Rogers, Brad Penny, Esteban Loaiza… well, maybe the list has a few hiccups. But that doesn’t mean that it’s an honor to be taken lightly. Because of the prestige involved, actually picking the starter is harder than it sounds.
That’s why Tony La Russa and Ron Washington are lucky this year: they have help. At numberFire, we’ve analyzed all of the potential ASG starters using our nERD (numberFire Efficiency Rating Derivative) system and picked the top 5 choices from both the AL and NL. nERD relies heavily on walks, strikeouts, and home runs, the type of plays that isolate the pictcher-batter duel independent of the rest of the defense. When we ran the numbers, we found that the Washington has an easy choice in the AL, but La Russa may have a few (more) sleepless nights leading up to July 10.
For realism’s sake, we’re only including pitchers actually playing on Tuesday. So sorry CC, you would have been #4, but you had to go and kill multiple fantasy teams. Not that I’m bitter at all.
5. Chris Sale – Chicago White Sox – nERD: 2.33
If you’re looking at my great-grandfather’s favorite statistic, the good ole win-loss column, then Chris Sale should be the starter by a mile. His 10-2 record and .833 win percentage is the best of any starter in the AL. Boom, bam, done. Well, that was a quick article. Please come back next time when numberFire Presents: Red Sox-Yankees, Or Why a Five-Hour Game Won’t Change Your Win Percentage.
Wait, that’s not right? Fine then. A lot of the “common” stats such as ERA (2.19) and WHIP (0.955) say that Sale should be right up there at the top. But his main problem is that he simply doesn’t miss that many bats. He manages to strike batters out only 24.6% of his batters faced, ranking fourth among the top 5 AL pitchers in terms of strikeout percentage. This number is actually down from his relieving days the past two seasons with the White Sox, which makes sense considering the wear and tear that a pitcher takes over the course of a longer outing. But it’s still nowhere near the 26.2% put up by Yu Darvish. Especially in an All-Star Game, you want a guy who can miss bats, because the balls in play are going to be hit harder than normal against an opposing team of entirely All-Stars.
4. David Price – Tampa Bay Rays – nERD: 2.44
The Price has been right for the Rays so far this year; David leads the entire American League with 11 wins on the season en route to helping Tampa Bay stay alive in that NATO-protest-level crazy AL East. Price really is solid all-around, but he doesn’t have any one great statistic that sets him apart from the other pitchers in the top tier of the AL. Out of the top five pitchers up for consideration for AL ASG starter, Price is near the bottom in most major categories: 5th in strikeout percentage (23.2%), 4th in walk percentage (8.2%), 5th in home run allowed percentage (2.2%), and 3rd at opponents’ batting average on balls into play (.294). If there’s one saving grace for Price, it’s that he induces more ground balls (1.17 grounder/fly ball ratio) than any other starter in the AL.
3. Yu Darvish – Texas Rangers – nERD: 2.51
If this was a contest to see who could create the most headlines and probably get the most press by being named the starter, Darvish would win in a landslide. It may have happened way back in January, but have people forgotten about his “special” T-shirt from the day he arrived in America already? I really hope not. This man is two countries’ national treasure. On the mound, Darvish has been just as exciting, but just not in a way that would be the most effective for the AL on the mound. Darvish misses the most bats by a landslide, with his 26.1% strikeout percentage leading the rest of the AL starters. Of course, he almost misses home plate the most by a landslide as well, with his 11.8% walk percentage the highest of any of the five players in the starter running for the AL by over 3 percentage points. Always entertaining, that Yu Darvish, but not necessarily the most efficient.
2. Felix Hernandez – Seattle Mariners – nERD: 2.72
It’s not too often that you see a guy sitting at 6-5 in the mix to be the starting pitcher for the All-Star Game, but that’s simply the Magic™ (with a Seal of Excellence from Nintendo) of the Seattle Mariners’ offense this season. He’s been making strikeouts like it’s his job, which is highly fortunate, because it actually is his job that made him $11.7 million last season. His 25.3% strikeout percentage is second among AL starters only behind Homeboy Yu, his walk percentage fourth behind Verlander, Sale and Matt Harrison, and his homerun given up percentage behind only Sale. He’s so good, he could almost be the starter. Almost. His percentages are good, and he would be the starter in the National League, but he’s just not to the level of…
1. Justin Verlander – Detroit Tigers – nERD: 2.86
Second in WHIP (0.95) for AL All-Star starters behind only Jared Weaver, third in strikeout percentage (24.8%) behind Hernandez and Darvish, and fourth in ERA behind Sale, Matt Harrison, and Jared Weaver, Verlander is at the top of almost every major statistical category among American League starters. The one stat that truly sets him apart on our list, though, is his walk percentage. Verlander only walks opposing batters on 5.8% of at-bats, good for first among AL starters in the All-Star Game by decimal points over Matt Harrison. He walks about a percentage point less than either Felix or Sale, three points less than Price, and almost half the total of Wildman Darvish. If you don’t put guys on base, you’re going to be a good pitcher in this league, and that’s the main reason why Verlander is my AL starter.
5. Stephen Strasburg – Washington Nationals – nERD: 2.50
I feel like a Stephen Strasburg vs. Mike Trout battle in the All-Star Game would be that first battle between future archenemies, when you’re not sure which side is stronger, and they’re just kind of feeling each other out and gauging the others’ strength. They’re supremely talented opposites that are each other’s as the ultimate foil. Like Batman and the Joker. Or Chris Brown and Drake. Or Ash and Gary. Strasburg may get to Ultimate Foil Level 100 one day, but he’s not quite there yet. He’ll get a ton of strikeouts (his 32.2% strikeout percentage is the highest for either teams’ starters), but he’ll also walk a ton of batters (7.2% walk percentage is the highest among the top 5 NL starters on this list). The real killer statistic for him is his opponents’ batting average on balls allowed into play – his .313 BABIP is .011 higher than any other NL ASG starter. Strasburg and his cartoonish arm, which I from now on am calling Charizard because of his fireballing abilities, need a little bit more refining before joining the Final Four.
4. Clayton Kershaw – Los Angeles Dodgers – nERD: 2.54
As much as it might hurt playing for a team that is seemingly being hit by the Black Plague (keep running, Clayton, before the DL Bug catches you), Kershaw’s been able to power through for an excellent year for the Dodgers. It’s just that, much like David Price, his statistics have been good but not great. His strikeout percentage among the top 5 NL starters on this list is in 5th (24.3%) while his walk percentage (4th – 6.5%) and home run allowed percentage (3rd – 2.3%) aren’t that much better. He’s been solid, but not spectacular enough to be named the NL starter for the All-Star Game.
3. Cole Hamels – Philadelphia Phillies – nERD: 2.59
This is when you know that you’re headed for an exciting Trade Deadline: one of the names floated about as a possible trade chip is in line to be the third starter for the National League in the All-Star Game just three weeks earlier. The Phillies have failed harder than a steak with Cheese Whiz this season, but Hamels has taken his sub and made it spectacular. Through the fun of statistics (I promise kids, that isn’t a joke), Hamels somehow managed to have exactly the same strikeout ratio as Matt Cain – 118 Ks in 473 batters faced – which ties him for fourth among NL starters in the ASG. He also has an above-average walk percentage at 6.1%, also fourth among NL ASG starters. The problem is, he lets up way too many home runs at 3.0% of at-bats, highest among any NL ASG starter. He also has a high opponent batting average against on balls in play at .280, third-highest among NL ASG starters.
2. Matt Cain – San Francisco Giants – nERD: 2.63
And now we get to the fun part, the Cain vs. Dickey argument. If this article was written just a week ago, when numberFire assembled stats to determine the ideal American League and National League All-Star Teams, then it would have been Dickey here in the 2-slot behind Cain. But now, the roles are reversed, albeit only barely. Matt Cain simply doesn’t know how to walk people: his 5.0% walk percentage is the lowest of any starting pitcher on either league’s All-Star Team. But Cain doesn’t have the strikeout percentage of Dickey (24.9% vs. Dickey’s 26.6%) or the ability to keep balls from flying out of the ballpark (2.5% of at-bats against were homers vs. Dickey’s 1.9%). The smoking gun in this argument, though, may be Cain’s ground-ball to fly-ball ratio. At 0.55, he creates a lower percentage of ground balls to fly balls of any pitcher on either team in the ASG. And when the opposing batters are the AL All-Stars as compared to the murderer’s row of the Cubs, Padres, Astros and A’s that he’s faced since the beginning of June, more of those fly balls will have a chance to get out.
1. R.A. Dickey – New York Mets – nERD: 2.69
In March 2011, I was still in school and the host of a Northwestern student radio show. I know, big news. At the end of one particular appearance, I competed against Sammy, a diehard, hopeless New York Mets fan, in a Pick ‘Em-type game, where the producers would pick who had the best answers at the end and crown a victor. We were essentially tied going into the final question, the simple “Who will win the NL Cy Young?” I picked Roy Halladay, standard, boring, safe, whatever. Sammy picked R.A. Dickey. He was laughed out of the studio, and I received my only ever Pick ‘Em victory, because that idiot picked R.A. Freaking Dickey to win the NL Cy Young. R.A. Dickey! It became a running inside joke among my friends. Who would ever pick R.A. Dickey to win the Cy Young?
Through one half of the season, R.A. Dickey deserves to win the Cy Young.
You expect a knuckleballer to be able to miss bats, and Dickey’s done exactly that, with his 26.6% strikeout percentage ranking third among NL starters in the ASG behind Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg’s ungodly total. You also expect a knuckleballer to induce his fair share of ground balls because of the way the ball dips – Dickey’s 1.07 groundball-fly ball ratio is first among NL ASG starters. What you don’t expect, however, is pinpoint accuracy and almost a complete lack of walks from a knuckleball pitcher. That’s where Dickey’s been at his most effective, with his 5.6% walk percentage of batters faced ranking third among all starting pitchers in the All-Star Game, either National League or American League. Dickey just can’t miss the zone. And that’s why, above all else, R.A. Dickey should be chosen the National League starter for the 2012 All-Star Game in Kansas City.